Sierra Nevada means what it says, and where is it anyway?

Misconception and mispronunciation, rather than long-standing myth, principally underlies this story about the massive mountain range that separates a sizable portion of California from Nevada. Winter brings snowstorms in, and around, the Sierra Nevada Mountains or the Sierra Nevadas. However, these pronunciations are wrong on all counts!

Padre Pedro Font gave the name Sierra Nevada to the mountain range on the eastern fringe of Spanish California in 1776. Sierra means mountains, that's mountains plural in Spanish, and Nevada means snow-covered.

How many times have you heard television news reporters and anchors, radio broadcasters, newspaper journalists, and people unfamiliar with the Spanish language refer to the Sierra Nevada (snow-covered mountains) as the Sierra Nevadas (snow-covered mountains).

East-coast based news accounts are generally the worst, making a plural out of Sierra Nevada akin to the Rocky Mountains becoming the Rockies (that's acceptable). At the same time, you can always tell when a new journalist or writer unfamiliar with the magnificent mountain range comes to town, and then compounds the problem, referring to the Sierra Nevada, when he or she points out the nearby cities of Carson City in the Carson Valley (it's in Eagle Valley) and Reno in Washoe Valley (it's in the Truckee Meadows).

In addition, what do the tens of millions of Spanish speaking people, particularly those in the western United States, think when they hear Sierra Nevada Mountains (snow-covered mountains mountains) or the Sierra Mountains (mountains mountains)?

My recommendation to anyone who is concerned that non-Spanish speaking persons won't know what you are talking about when you refer to the Sierra Nevada is to call it the Sierra Nevada range. At least you eliminate the redundancy of referring to mountains twice and display a little knowledge of Spanish. (Do people in New Mexico and Texas refer to the Rio Grande as the Rio Grande River?)

Now here is something that might surprise people who have lived in the area a while and know to call the Sierra Nevada the Sierra Nevada or just the Sierra: technically the Sierra Nevada and its crest line is wholly and solely in California.

Yes, I know, when the immigrants crossed the Great Basin and saw this huge mountain range looming in front of them, they called it the Sierra Nevada.

I would hazard a guess that most people when they look at Jobs Peak, or Kings Canyon, or Slide Mountain and Mount Rose, they refer to the Sierra Nevada. I certainly have.

However, when you talk to geographers and geologists they tell you what you are looking at is the Carson Range and not the Sierra Nevada. The biggest concession I was able to get was that it was a mountain spur of the Sierra Nevada.

However, the Sierra Nevada crest line is clearly west of Lake Tahoe.

All of this would have been so much easier had California agreed to the language in Nevada's Organic (1861) and Enabling (1864) acts and given Nevada the land east from the crest of the Sierra.

Of course, California was not about to relinquish Lake Tahoe and a significant portion of its eastern border which now includes the communities of Susanville, Truckee, Tahoe City, South Lake Tahoe, Markleeville, Coleville, Bridgeport, Lee Vining, Bishop and points south. So remember, Sierra is plural for mountains, and Nevada is not to be made plural and you will look and sound sage.

And as far as I am concerned the Carson Range is a part of the Sierra Nevada, if only just a majestic, breath-taking spur.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment